Column on Must We Be Hawks?

Must We be Hawks?

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Alan Wolfe, the well known and widely published political
scientists from Boston College, has written an interesting essay on
liberal interventionism in the journal World Affairs (Winter 2009),
arguing that this "species" is now endangered. In the course of his
discussion he makes a point that is worth pondering, namely, that
"Liberals believe–I believe–that we are under a moral obligation to help
people who are oppressed." An apparently very straightforward if
troublesome statement, this is.

Moral obligations attend to individuals, in answer to how they ought to
live their lives. Mostly they vary a lot since individuals are not all
alike, face different options and are differently constituted–a father
has different moral obligations from someone who has no children, for
example. The claim laid out by Professor Wolfe is full of ambiguity,
despite its apparent directness and clarity, although it does smack of
altruism, the moral doctrine that our lives must be devoted to helping
others. It modifies this sentiment somewhat by imploring us the help only
those who are oppressed.

Of course, just because liberals–or some of them–believe something it
doesn’t follow that it’s right. On this score, as on others, liberals may
well be wrong. (And Wolfe is here speaking not of classical liberals,
today’s libertarians, but of welfare state, domestically interventionist
liberals who are on record with their belief in the "buttinsky" state!)
Altruism itself is full of problems as an ethical doctrine. Why should the
well being of others be our priority when others are in essential respects
like us and we surely know better our own situations–needs, wants,
abilities, options–than that of other people? It calls to mind that
famous quip from W. H. Auden, "We are here on earth to do good for others.
What the others are here for, I don’t know."

Now if one is serious about following altruism, one is almost necessarily
going to embrace the liberal view on military policy. This, however, is
still a thesis about what individuals should do, not what we should do
collectively or what the role of government ought to be. In a civilized
society, force is supposed to be a last resort to solving problems and
mostly to be avoided. Indeed, in the older, classical liberal tradition
good behavior was supposed to be encouraged but not mandated, with
government providing the protection of everyone’s right to choose how to
live, or everyone right to be free.

While it is quite right that when government becomes oppressive it has
abrogated its duty to protect the rights of the citizens, it doesn’t
follow from this that other governments are now authorized or obligated to
intervene. This is not because the oppressive governments enjoy
sovereignty, so they may oppress their populations or do other violent
things. Once they are oppressive, they have lost their legitimacy and may
be opposed, even forcefully. The reason other governments may not
interfere unless the oppressors have attacked them is that governments
must serve the people who have established and maintain them. Just like
body guards serve their clients, governments serve their citizens. Going
off to serve the oppressed in other countries would in effect amount to
going AWOL, leaving their proper posts.

There can be situations, of course, when governments ought to attend to
oppressive foreign governments, namely, when those governments pose a
clear and present danger to the citizens whom they must serve. (This, by
the way, is why it was so vital to the Bush administration to find weapons
of mass destruction–such weapons do pose a clear and present danger when
possessed by a hostile foreign country, one that’s on record aiming to do
damage.) Also, if one government, in a peaceful country, has entered into
agreements with others to share one another’s defense, this, too, would
serve to justify taking action against another government if it has
attacked or poses a clear and present danger against the friendly country
with whom such an agreement is in place. Mutual defense alliances are all
about such circumstances.

None of this, however, amounts to becoming the guardian angel of the
world. Just as ordinary citizens have no moral obligation to seek out
oppressive neighbors and involve themselves–except perhaps in some very
dire cases and when this is something they are capable of doing without
neglecting their own families–so governments are bound to defend their
own citizens, first and foremost. But while governments are duty bound to
stand by to defend their own citizens, the citizens themselves may embark
on measures that will help oppressed people abroad. Still, they, too, do
not have a general moral obligation or duty to do so. What could possibly
motivate their lending a hand is generosity, compassion, empathy, and
other virtues of civilized people. Self-sacrifice or the unqualified moral
obligation to help people who are oppressed, however, isn’t such a virtue.
Any help would have to come from a sense of fellow feeling, of
camaraderie, not a sense of duty!

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